Most times in life, you get what you pay for. But sometimes -- my favorite restaurants fall into this category -- you get a little bit more. Bistro 301 sits right in that sweet spot, a place that offers interesting, nicely executed cuisine without digging too deeply into the wallet.
The restaurant, formerly known as Deke's Marketplace Grill, has been a downtown mainstay for years. Long before the recent proliferation of restaurants in and around the entertainment district, Deke's had established itself as a solid destination for beer and burgers. But when Matt Mershon took it over in 2003, the restaurant began a gradual transformation. Three years later, a name change to Bistro 301 and a subtle remodeling job turned what had felt like a sports bar into a bona fide bistro.
Indoors, the exposed brick walls, hardwood floors and quirky product posters create a cozy, gleaming denlike feel. For fair-weather dining, a row of umbrella-shaded sidewalk tables nestle up against the sleek black exterior. Even on very busy nights -- and the restaurant's location near the Kentucky International Convention Center and Actors Theatre translates into plenty of busy nights -- service is friendly and opinionated.
Ask a server about entrees, the wine list or the evening's dessert menu, and you'll get a candid, well-informed viewpoint without hemming or hawing. (Speed can sometimes suffer on theater nights, so diners trying to make a curtain might want to make that clear when ordering.)
The kitchen team (headed by chef James Lucas) seems to lavish just as much attention on a burger as on a high-priced steak. A turkey burger ($7.95), for instance, was freshly ground, had a crunchy, lightly charred surface and was as richly flavored with onions and spices as a classic meatloaf.
Classic pub dishes -- chicken wings ($7.95), chips and queso ($4.95/ $7.95) -- are competent and quick, and folks looking for something more will find hummus, calamari and steamed mussels cloaked in the bold aromas of saffron and anchovies. And soups -- like a chorizo bean soup with rich, mellow heat ($2.95/$4.95) -- make a fine meal when partnered with sandwiches like grilled chicken glazed with molasses and pomegranate. Salads, such as a classic Caesar ($4.95/$7.95; optional anchovies an extra $2) and poached pear with arugula ($8.95), are colorful and flavorful.
A handful of pasta entrees offer big-flavored bargains, especially since they're available in both small and large portions -- when partnered with salads and starters, the small portions make a fine meal. Tortellini Diablo ($10.95/ $16.95) looked a bit unkempt, but the mix of grilled chicken, smoke-laced andouille sausage and pink, peppery cream sauce went perfectly with a glass of Schlafly American Pale Ale.
Other notable pasta options include bucatini with shrimp in a dill-tarragon sauce ($10.95/$17.95) and cavatappi (double elbow macaroni) with roasted mushrooms and chive oil ($10.95/$14.95).
A short list of poultry, chops, steaks and seafood entrees ($17.95-$29.95) includes the witty "Martini" salmon -- a lush, perfectly grilled fillet touched up with a vodka and green olive butter sauce ($18.95). And if your server suggests the chocolate torte ($6.95), indulge yourself. It's at once coarse and creamy, not too sweet, and exploding with chocolate flavor.